|Steven Fredericks, Gilad Paz, Caroline Tye, Terina Westmeyer, Halley Gilbert, Heather Roberts, Christopher Grundy, and Erik Bagger|
Albert Herring proved that Benjamin Britten could create comedies that were just as successful as his dramatic masterworks such as Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. A turn-of-the-last-century English village is shocked to discover that chaste young women are in perilously short supply, so bashful Albert is crowned "King of the May Festival," only to launch a night of revelry that leaves his elders aghast and his chums impressed.
The libretto, adapted by Eric Crozier from a short story by Guy de Maupassant, offers splendid opportunities for storytelling involving a motley collection of colorful characters inhabiting a small English village at the turn of the 20th century.
Britten's music, written in 1947 for a chamber orchestra (The English Opera Group), provides excellent opportunities for musicians to show their stuff, limning the stunning orchestration and sneaking in several musical references such as a motif from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde when Albert drinks the spiked lemonade.
The opera was an excellent choice for the Bronx Opera. They have been producing opera for nearly a half-century but this is the first time we have reviewed their work. The weather was bitterly cold and perhaps the best compliment we can pay them is that the evening was well worth the two-hour round trip.
The venue, the Lovinger Theater at Lehman College, is absolutely perfect with fine sight lines and acoustics, and an orchestral pit that descends below stage level. Musical values were splendid all around. The dozen musicians were individually and collectively superb and finely balanced under the expert baton of Michael C. Haigler. There was one long duet for alto flute (Lisa Arkis) and bass clarinet (Monte Morgenstern) which took our breath away. The singers were also well-balanced, particularly in the sextet of Act I, Scene 1.
The singers were exceedingly well cast. Each singer created a character with a distinctive personality--the aristocratic and domineering Lady Billows (Terina Westmeyer) commanded the stage with a room-filling Wagnerian soprano and a walking stick, justified by a limp; her much put-upon housekeeper Florence Pike (Caroline Tye) kept things in order with a low and resonant timbre; the straw-hatted schoolteacher Miss Wordsworth (Halley Gilbert) who used her fine soprano in a very funny scene leading her three students in a musical encomium to Albert; the controlling Mrs. Herring (Heather Roberts) who kept poor Albert tied to her apron strings with a fine mezzo; and the flirtatious Nancy (Yselle Blum) whose equally fine mezzo managed to captivate her boyfriend Sid, Albert, and the audience.
Among the men, we enjoyed tenor Erik Bagger's portrayal of the eponymous hero--at first under his mother's thumb, shy and stooped over, later intoxicated and silly, and finally joyful and liberated. Steven Fredericks employed his rich bass to portray Superintendent Budd of the police force; Tenor Gilad Paz made an excellent conciliatory Mayor Upfold; baritone Christopher Grundy was perfect as Vicar Gedge and had admirable diction. Baritone Steven Eddy portrayed Sid, the butcher's assistant who plotted with Nancy to lead poor Albert down the primrose path.
The singing and acting could not have been better but the diction could have been improved. The men fared better on this account than the women, with Ms. Blum being an exception. This is a common problem when operas are sung in English. The Bronx Opera chooses to perform all of its operas in English and one would think that the goal were to make the story clear to the audience. In fact, the synopsis in the program made the story clear but a significant part of the dialogue got swallowed. Fortunately, the acting was so effective that the humor succeeded. Titles would have been welcomed.
Production values were way beyond what one would expect from a small company. Professionalism of the highest degree was noted in the fluid direction by Rod Gomez, the perfect costuming by Peter Fogel and the effective sets by Meganne George. Simple elements combined to create Lady Billows' black and white parlor with its Victorian silhouettes and Mrs. Herring's grocery with its colorful baskets of fruits, vegetables and flowers. Lighting by Joshua Rose contributed a great deal, especially during scene-changes which recreated the images of the Victorian silhouettes.
We haven't seen Albert Herring since the Santa Fe Opera performed it 4 1/2 years ago with an all-star cast. The production we saw last night was in no way less impressive. If you live in the Bronx you may wish to catch today's matinee. Otherwise there will be two more performances next weekend at Hunter College.
(c) meche kroop